While George Anderson may have had the first plan to build a stairway to the summit, he was not the last. Anderson’s successor in this effort was Matthew Hall McAllister.
McAllister was a successful businessman from San Francisco who had a deep love for the outdoors, especially the mountains of California. He was an active member of the Sierra Club in the days when the Club still had a strong regional focus on mountain climbing in the Sierra.
A Mountain for All
In the early years of the twentieth century, McAllister began to think of ways to build a safe route to Half Dome’s summit. But why do this? Why create a route to this remote and challenging summit?
One of his great passions was to encourage others to explore the outdoors and help them to discover sublime moments in nature that would inspire them toward the conservation of these wild places. Those moments could be skiing through an old growth forest, catching a rainbow trout, or reaching the summit of a majestic peak. In Half Dome, with its heavenly 360-degree views, he may have seen a quick path to inspire new generations of conservationists.
McAllister agonized over how to finance, construct, and manage a human-made route up the mountain. Finally, with great fear, he pitched his plan to the Sierra Club.
First, to make the deal as sweet as possible, he would pay for the materials and labor. He would also oversee the work, which would take place as an official Sierra Club project. The Sierra Club, in turn, would pitch this project as a donation to the Park. All the Park had to do was provide in-kind contributions of pack animals to bring the laborers and materials to the job site and tools to perform the work. Further, the plan had the support of David Curry, the owner of the famous Camp Curry located below Glacier Point, who hoped to increase the number of visitors to his hotel.
The directors of the Sierra Club accepted the plan with enthusiasm, and the National Park Service gave its permission as well. Construction started in the Spring of 1919.
But the big question remained: How would McAllister construct a route up the steep, hard, and slick granite shoulder of Half Dome? And could it survive the avalanches that had destroyed George Anderson’s ropes?
The Iron Way
McAllister’s plan was simple. There would be nothing extravagant—no gondolas or 800-foot long staircases. He would install a permanent version of what Anderson had done.
Mules and laborers brought supplies to the base of the Sub Dome. Here, McAllister and his crew started work on what we know today as the Half Dome Trail. First, they had to build a better route up the Sub Dome. They blasted away at the rock to make steps. They built traditional dry stone walls to support the trail. What was once a perilous journey in itself, the path up the Sub Dome was now accessible to any hiker. These steps became known to some as the Devil’s Staircase.
Higher up at the Sub Dome-Half Dome saddle, they assembled their materials and tools and then set to work. Instead of ropes, the new route used thick, steel cables. There were two sets of cables, placed thirty inches apart. Every ten feet, the workers drilled a large hole into the rock for each cable. They put a metal post, called a stanchion, into the hole. Laborers then placed the cable in a groove in the top of the stanchion. A cap was then screwed on to hold the cable in place. At the bottom of each set of stanchions, a beam was secured to create a resting point. The two cables were anchored to the rock every one hundred feet using giant eye-bolts that were similar to what Anderson had used over fifty years prior.
This path of parallel cables formed a safe walkway. Hikers would climb between the cables, holding on to them for support. When someone needed to rest, all they had to do was stop at a stanchion where a beam created an artificial ledge. For a brief period, there were even harnesses that hikers could use to attach themselves to the cables in case they fell. This new route was undoubtedly in a new spirit compared to the loose bolts and rotten ropes of the previous decades. With these cables, nearly anyone in good physical condition could get up the mountain.
McAllister and his workers completed the project in July of 1919 to much fanfare.
The Director of the National Park Service stated in a report:
“A very useful contribution to the park was made this year  by the donation, through the Sierra Club, of a protection for the trail to the top of Half Dome. … The old arrangement was dangerous and unsafe. … The new cable was installed early in July, and it was used by climbers who appreciated keenly the opportunity of seeing the wonderful view from the top of Half Dome, with its sheer drop of practically 5,000 feet to the valley below.”
The laborers erected a gateway at the base of the Sub Dome, the foundations of which still stand today. And they placed a plaque near the bottom of the cables, memorializing the project. It read:
Under Auspices of the
Captain George Anderson
Who First Ascended this Dome in
A couple of years later, National Geographic magazine published photos of the new Cables Route and Half Dome. The Sierra Club Bulletin wrote:
“The cable stairway up Half Dome, donated to the park by Mr. McAllister, proved very satisfactory, and enabled thousands to reach the summit of the Dome, which heretofore had been a very hazardous undertaking.”
For the first time, any person of reasonable fitness could attain Half Dome’s summit. The cables were a permanent installation designed to pass the test of time, but can any human-made path truly compare with the permanence of Half Dome?
Half Dome’s Winter Fury
During the winter months, snow accumulates on the slick slabs of Half Dome’s shoulders. When the snow load reaches a critical mass, it breaks free of the rock and slides down the slabs in destructive, and sometimes deadly, avalanches. McAllister had thought about this and developed a clever plan to prevent his cables from being demolished.
While the cables were affixed to the rock permanently, the stanchions were removable. Each fall, all the Park had to do was unscrew the caps on the stanchions, lift the cable out, and remove the stanchions from their holes. Then the stanchions and wood beams would be stored in a safe place on the Sub Dome. The cables would now rest flat against the granite and thus allow avalanches to slide over them. In the spring, after the ice and snow clinging to Half Dome’s shoulder had melted, the process would be reversed.
Unfortunately, the Park Service failed to take down the stanchions during the winter of 1919-1920; perhaps the rangers were busy elsewhere or perhaps they were ignorant of the power of snow. Avalanches destroyed about one hundred feet of stanchions. The cables were still intact, a stroke of luck, and the Park was able to make repairs that summer.
For some reason, the Park did not learn a lesson from this lapse. The cables again suffered avalanche damage in the winter of 1921-1922. One of them even broke free.
The cables had to be repaired several times over the coming decades. Significant repairs and cable replacements took place in 1934 and again in 1984.
The original route that George Anderson had established was dangerous and not for the meek. Very few people made the complete ascent in the years 1875-1919. With the cables in place, hikers flooded in over the coming decades, presenting new challenges to the Park. Separately, the Golden Age of rock climbing in Yosemite was fast approaching. On this tide of change, a few brave souls sought out challenges that far surpassed the engineering feats of Anderson and McAllister. For these climbers, only the steepest of Half Dome’s faces were worthy trophies.